Behind the Story: How a Writer Prepared for a 40,000-Mile Trip

Eighteen months ago, when the New York-based T writer at large Aatish Taseer began planning his reporting trips for this month’s three-part feature story — an exploration of religious travel in Bolivia, Mongolia and Iraq — he was already well acquainted with the idea of pilgrimage. His first book, the 2009 memoir “Stranger to History,” opens with what is arguably the world’s best-known faith-motivated journey, the hajj to Mecca, and ends with what he describes as a personal pilgrimage to meet his estranged father in Pakistan. In Delhi, India, where Taseer grew up, quick trips for the purpose of worship were commonplace. “People would do a pilgrimage on an ordinary Sunday,” he says, “instead of going to an amusement park.”

This undertaking, however, was much bigger. Though Taseer has traveled extensively — including for T, where he has written about the complicated history of rice in Mexico, political and personal revolutions in Turkey and the remnants of Islamic influence in Spain — these three destinations were entirely new to him. Then there was the sheer ambition of the trip, which was, he says, “by far and without a shadow of a doubt” the most arduous journey he’s ever undertaken. This past year, he traveled to the Bolivian Andes for the Feast of the Virgin of Copacabana, traversed the Gobi Desert to visit Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia and headed to Najaf and Karbala in Iraq during the annual period of mourning around Ashura, which commemorates the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein. By the end, he had covered more than 40,000 miles, including the return trips home. “It wasn’t just the 20-hour flights or the hundreds of miles of driving,” he says of what made the trip so challenging. “It was extreme altitude in the Altiplano, 115 degree heat in Iraq and cold and desolation in Mongolia. Iraq was the culmination of all this discomfort because, apart from the heat, we were in a city in the throes of religious frenzy. I felt completely drained — and elated, somehow — by the end of it all.”

Like many of his other stories for T, this month’s is defined by what Taseer characterizes as “the wounds of the past reverberating into the present.” He continues: “All three societies are still recovering from historic cataclysms, whether it was the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the Communist erasure of Buddhist Mongolia or the pain the Shiites of Iraq feel for Hussein, which they use as a thread to connect all the injustices of history.” For Taseer, pilgrimage was not so much a means of exploring faith as “a way to enter into the unresolved history of these places.”

On his trip to Copacabana, Taseer bought a few small, double-sided Virgin pendants that he had blessed by a priest. He has worn one ever since — not that his travels resulted in a conversion to Catholicism, or in any sort of spiritual awakening in the traditional sense. He did, however, come away changed. “I was very moved by human beings going to these places with this sense of expectation. I found that very powerful and heartbreaking,” he says. “It had an effect on me that I think is close enough to a religious experience.” — Jenny Comita

Sahred From Source link Travel

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